The Coffee Culture of Southeast Asia

Like every morning across Southeast Asia and most parts of the world, the day begins at a common gathering place — the local coffee joint.

On one end of the neighbourhood, a horde of early morning workers flock to the nearest kopitiam to begin their day with an extra jolt of energy. They would shout their order to the hawkers — a choice of kopi (black coffee with condensed milk), kopi o (black coffee with sugar), kopi c (coffee with evaporated milk and sugar), or kopi o kaw (extra strong).

Take a turn to the next block and you’ll chance upon a row of artsy cafés, drawing in the ever-curious coffee aficionados every day. Baristas clad in crisp uniforms take the place of hawkers in a Pagoda singlet, sock-like sieves are replaced by state-of-the-art machines with glossy levers and handles, and the menu now includes a fancy selection (Piccolo Latte, anyone?).

Travel to other parts of Southeast Asia and you’ll see that starting the day with coffee is a tradition that still holds strong. So how does the coffee culture evolve around Southeast Asian countries? Let’s find out.

Singapore — Kopi

three cups of coffee on a black tray
Singapore’s kopi, made from Robusta beans, is widely available in any of the thousands of hawker centres throughout the city. Photo from Discover SG

Ordering the perfect cup of kopi in a kopitiam — kopi means coffee in Malay, and tiam means shop in Hokkien and Fujianese — is a little complicated. You’d need to be able to answer a set of questions — “Hot or iced?”, “Milk or sugar?”, “Condensed milk or evaporated milk?”, “Thick or thin?”.

Singapore’s coffee beans are roasted in a wok with butter, lard, or sugar, which gives off a unique caramelised aroma. Coffee is then served to your liking — kopi (with milk), kopi o (without milk), kopi gar dai (more sugar), kopi siew dai (less sugar), and kopi kosong (no sugar). Pair your cup of coffee with a kaya toast or a half-boiled egg, and voila, you’ll have the perfect Singaporean breakfast.

Malaysia — Kopi Kaw

black coffee in an antique cup
Malaysia’s kopi kaw has a serious kick, thanks to the bitter Liberica beans. Photo from SAYS

Malaysians take pride in the inky, black kopi kaw they are famously known for — concentrated black, extra strong; the bitter, the better.

Want to learn how to appreciate black coffee? Here’s a beginner’s guide.

Malaysia’s kopi is made of the bitter Liberica beans, which are dry roasted with butter or margarine. The local mamak brews the coffee beans in a tubular-shaped cloth strainer before condensed or evaporated milk is added to mellow the kopi’s burnt flavour. Or, if your palate is acclimated to bitter coffee, go kopi o kaw. Stronger, without the sweetness.

How special is specialty coffee? A Malaysian coffee connoisseur tells us more.

Thailand — Oliang

drizzling condensed milk into a cup of iced coffee
Interestingly, different vendors have their own take to oliang. Some mix the coffee powder with spices, while others mix it with brown sugar. Photo from Medano Coffee

Coffee typically accompanies breakfast, but in Thailand, people drink coffee at all hours of the day. Both the locals and tourists know all too well how the revered iced coffee or oliang — the “o” stands for black and “liang” translates to iced or cold — is a great thirst quencher in the sweltering temperature.

Traditionally, oliang is brewed with a tungdtom, a Thailand coffee filter with a metal collar and a grip to which a cloth bag is attached. Street vendors then usually serve oliang with condensed milk, evaporated milk or a sweetening syrup.

Indonesia — Kopi Tubruk

a tall glass of black coffee
Indonesia’s kopi tobruk is prepared in utter simplicity, yet it is the region’s most famous brewing style. Photo from Wahyu Masud

The day doesn’t begin in Indonesia until one has had a cup of kopi tubruk, sometimes referred to as mud coffee, for the daily hit of caffeine.

Here’s what goes in the making of kopi tubruk — coffee makers pour water a little below boiling point into a beer mug with fine or medium ground coffee. Sugar is added for those who prefer sweet coffee. The coffee is then left for a few minutes to let the coffee grounds settle to the bottom, allowing you to drink without getting a mouthful of dregs.

Indonesia’s coffee is as diverse as its islands. Read more about Kintamani Coffee and Toraja Coffee.

Vietnam — Cà Phê Trứng

Vietnam's signature coffee with egg yolk
Who would have thought substituting milk in coffee with egg yolk would set a trend? Photo from Long & Short

In a typical Vietnamese coffee shop, your coffee comes with raw eggs beaten to form a thick, foamy cream that sits on top of your drink. Think of a Cadbury Creme Egg with a hint of mocha — that’s cà phê trứng (Vietnamese egg coffee).

In the 1900s, milk was scarce in Vietnam, and so whisked egg yolk was use as a substitute.  The Vietnamese egg coffee was prepared by whisking egg yolks with condensed milk before it is added on top of coffee. Some vendors also beat egg yolks with coffee and condensed milk, before separating the coffee and the cream.

Learn more about Vietnam’s coffee culture and how to make their signature coffee drinks at home.

Cambodia — Gah-fay Dteuk-gork

a coffee truck in Cambodia
Heads up: Cambodians take their caffeine sweet. Photo from Authentic Food Quest

On the bustling streets of Cambodia, gah-fay dteuk-gork (Khmer for iced coffee) is sold in plastic bags or plastic cups, hanging from motorcyclists’ handlebars.

Cambodia’s coffee beans are usually sourced from neighbouring Vietnam or the local farms, where they are sun-dried to preserve sugars and oils. The slow roasting gives off the unique sweet yet bitter taste of Cambodian iced coffee.

Fun fact: Did you know that Cambodian-grown coffee is roasted in vegetable fat?

Gah-fay dteuk-gork is often served with condensed milk and poured into a container which would be filled to the top with ice. The ice balances the otherwise too sweet and bitter coffee taste.

Enjoying coffee across Southeast Asia

pouring black coffee into a transparent glass jar
In Southeast Asia, beginning the day with a jolt of caffeine is a tradition that still holds strong. Photo from Farsai Chaikulngamdee

Coffee in Southeast Asia varies from motorcyclist vendors to a portable mini stand and thriving cafés around town. But what remains the same is most coffees served are sweet and creamy, giving you just the right amount of kick to start your day.

Travel to Southeast Asia for a unique taste of coffee each region offers. Even better, recreate one tailored to your preferences in the comfort of your own home with De’Longhi bean-to-cup coffee makers.